Recent Commonplace Entries


“The human brain works by an astoundingly complex and powerful chemical process of near instant interactions. We have evolved like this to cope with uncertainty: our fate as a species.” (Paul Collier in Books of the Year, in TLS, November 26)

“More often, as political scientist David Runciman has argued, democracies have a habit of pulling through crises without truly learning from them. (Think of the way ‘neoliberalism’ has limped on since the 2008 financial crash.)” (Philip Ball, in Prospect, December)

“Until 1948 a British woman (not a man) who married a foreigner automatically lost her nationality and passport. The act immediately and retrospectively corrected that. (Though Patel does not go into this, the urgency came from the plight of the many young women, largely Scottish, who had married Polish soldiers during or after the war and had returned with them to Poland. A few years later, the onset of Stalinism brought the arrest of their husbands as ‘imperialist agents’, and stranded many of them in the peasant countryside, often with no money, young children and only a few words of Polish, harassed by the secret police and deprived of any right to ask the British Embassy for help. The Nationality Act rescued them, licensing British diplomats to drive about Poland distributing bundles of fresh passports.)” (Neal Ascherson, from review of Ian Sanjay Patel’s We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire, in London Review of Books, November 18)

“And for all his gifts in language, he was far from persuasive in argument. He had the partisanship of the barrister his father had wanted him to be, without the forensic skill or dialectical acuity. Throughout his life he took assertion for demonstration, and rhetoric for logic, and he was prone to making what English judges call bad points, arguments that aren’t so much untrue, or true but irrelevant, unintended ‘own goals’.” (from Churchill’s Shadow, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, p 72)

“Altogether, Beaverbrook was truly wicked, a puppet-master and wire-puller, a flatterer, a seducer and a corrupter, a bully, a liar and a crook, a thorough-going scoundrel, whose influence on journalistic and public life was wholly malign, far from least his influence on Churchill.” (from Churchill’s Shadow, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, p 102)

“Never in the field of human conflict have so few words caused so much suffering to so little effect.” (on Churchill’s ‘Set Europe Ablaze’ slogan for SOE, from Churchill’s Shadow, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, p 102)

“Studying Stalin’s life, I began to entertain the notion — I’m a writer, it’s my job to exaggerate — that the gulags were a kind of revenge for all the intolerable itching. Of course, not everyone with psoriasis becomes a villain. Most of us are good people. But Stalin wasn’t the only evil so-and-so with psoriasis: The Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar had it, as did Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Peruvian terrorist organization Shining Path, whose arrest came about because his pursuers found jars of his skin cream in the trash cans at his hide-out.” (Sergio del Molino in NYT, December 17)

“We’ve had a dialogue with Russia on European security issues for the last 20 years. We had it with the Soviet Union for decades before that.” (Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, to an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations, from NYT, December 18)

“It should be said, of course, that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with ‘rewriting’ history. Historians rewrite history all the time: it’s our job. Our success and prestige depend on our discovering new facts and advancing new interpretations. There’s nothing very left-wing about this. Conservative historians like Lewis Namier and Geoffrey Elton have rewritten history in hugely influential ways. Historians of all stripes need to reclaim history as a contentious, critical and diverse discipline against the attempts of ignorant and mendacious governments to force citizens to conform to a particular version of it.” (Richard J. Evans in London Review of Books, December 2)

“Everyone has a book in them, and that, in most cases, is where it should stay.” (Christopher Hitchens, according to Joanna Kavenna in Literary Review, December/January)

“But the main problem with defectors is that they quickly run out of crown jewels and then invariably resort to invention what they think their new-found paymasters want to hear in order to extend their usefulness and avoid being discarded to end their days washing dishes in a Hungarian restaurant in downtown Washington.” (James Rusbridger, in The Intelligence Game, p 57)

“When a minister, or even the prime minister, assures Parliament that everything in MI5 is all right what he really means is that this is what he has been told by the head of MI5, which is about as much use as sending a rabbit to fetch a lettuce.” (James Rusbridger, in The Intelligence Game, p 240)

“A more phlegmatic response to the Famous First Book dilemma was that of Kingsley Amis, who in later years was asked if Lucky Jim hadn’t been a bit of an albatross around his neck. ‘It’s better than having no albatross at all,’ he replied.” (Julian Barnes in the London Review of Books, December 16)

“I like to be in a room where I’ve read half the books, and I’d like there to be enough books that I cannot possibly read them in my remaining years.” (Reid Byers, author of The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom, quoted in NYT, December 26)

“There is really no comparison between my grandparents’ iron-spiked experiences and my marshmallow life. They could never go back to where they were born. I can; though when I do, I feel ever more disconnected, déraciné, what Stalin called a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, while at the same time till the day I die I shall be seen as a foreigner in the place I now regard as home.” (Geoffrey Elliott in From Siberia, With Love, p 3)

“An appeaser was most memorably described by Winston Churchill as ‘one who feeds a crocodile – hoping it will eat him last’. He used the analogy in 1940 about Hitler and again in 1954 to warn about Stalin’s imperialism.” (Owen Matthews in the Spectator, December 18)

2 Responses to Recent Commonplace Entries

  1. Michael

    Not sure where to find on the map “his . . . redbrick house at Purely with its back-garden tennis-court”. Just south of Corydon, perhaps? And a few other typos this month, which are I believe abhorred by you.

    • coldspur

      Thank you, Michael. That damned autocorrect feature, I am sure. I have rebuked my Chief Editor, Thelma. But I am responsible: the buck stops here.

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